Lock down the journos

Have you ever imagined journalists being locked down for half a day and shut out from the daily happenings in their work environment?

It was an experience I came across in Canberra when hundreds of Australian journalists were stripped of their communication gadgets and shut from the rest of the world for nearly seven hours before the Treasurer handed down Australia’s national budget in parliament on May 10th 2011.

Outside Australia’s national parliament

The Parliament house stood tall in Canberra as I saw it on TV from Honiara, never imagined I will enter the magnificent structure in the capital city Canberra.

Visitors lined and checked through the entrance via uniformed security guards and scanning machines, so eager to enter and see what’s in this building carrying a pole weighing tens of tones with a piece of colorful cloth attached to the top.

It was Tuesday the 10th of May 2011 when the turn comes for a group of ten journalists from Indonesia, Timor Leste, Fiji, Papua New Guinea , Vanuatu and Solomon Islands to check out the building as part of their fellowship program at the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre.

Noticeably, they were among a lot of groups who came to visit this magnificent building that particular day.

The group of Journalists were on a fellowship program on the theme of ‘Reporting the Economic Lives of Communities.’

The whole of Australia was looking forward to the treasurer handing down the national 2011 national budget at 7.30pm later that day.

Funding agencies and institutions were all but eager to see how much will their allocation be when a copy of the ‘blue book’ finally gets to them after the budget presentation that evening.

Journalists were busy from the morning of the day preparing what would become part of the news bulletins that evening and the days ahead as debates and discussions about the budget dragged on.

Why are all these offices full of chairs, tables, and laptop computers?’ one reporter asked our tour guide, as the clock ticked past 10.30 am.

‘All the journalists covering the 2011 budget will be locked down in these rooms, minus all means of communication to the outside world’ the tour guide informed us.

Journalists from Asia Pacific on APJC Program on parliament visit

‘They will not be allowed out of these rooms until after the treasurer delivered his budget speech to the House of Representatives at 7.30 tonight.’

It never dawned on me that budgets can be that secretive here in Australia.

The very interesting thing about the lock down of journalists however was that they will have access to a lot of finance and budgeting experts provided at by the government.

Journalists will have access to budget figures and information to work on for their organizations, however, these will not come to the public until the treasurer delivered his budget speech.

No journalist can leak any information out of the lock down rooms because there is no means of communication to the outside, no mobile phones, no email connections to the outside etc.

I think the information compiled to newspapers and radio or tv bulletins are cued up in a system within the building and disseminated immediately after the speech to their destination in the various media organizations.

7pm and all the ten journalists and their tour guides were back in parliament chamber to witness the budget speech delivered by the treasurer.

At exactly 7.30 pm, the Speaker of the House entered and budget proceedings began.

The speech went for almost 25 minutes, and of the hundreds of journalists on lock down earlier in the day, you can count how many of them actually turned up at the chamber to witness the speech delivery.

It seemed the treasurer had already spoken to the locked down reporters, and it seemed they were all satisfied with what they had done throughout the lock down period.

It was an experience very new to me, and perhaps would not hurt exploring it further for similar budget deliveries in our island countries.

After all, this experience has been made possible through the fellowship of the Asia Pacific Journalism Centre, APJC, which I had been part of over the past five weeks.

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